The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the Root of All Suffering?

The Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of Buddhism, stress that “desire is the root of all suffering.”

beautiful lotus flower floating on top of a lake with light shining on the surface
Several religions–including Buddhism and Hinduism–reverence the lotus flower because it symbolizes transcendence from the pains and temptations of the material world.  Rooted in deep mud (Earth) and separated from the sun (God), it is the perfect analogy for the human condition.  Over time, however, the lotus reaches for the light, penetrates through the mud, and surfaces above the water, producing an exquisitely beautiful flower.  (Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the Root of All Suffering

I love Buddhist writings because they are like riddles, and challenge the way I think. For example, I’ve spent the past few years contemplating the words, “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I generally pride myself in my ability to reason, but the notion of “ALL desire” causing suffering had me confuddled.  When I first heard the words…they felt mostly true.  But I still wondered, “Is desire=suffering always true, or mostly true, or…. What am I missing here?  What about ‘righteous desires?’ Righteous desires don’t necessarily cause suffering or…do they?”

Definition of suffer:
transitive verb
1a: to submit to or be forced to endure

This week, I was again pondering on whether desire is the root of all suffering when I had one of those epic “eureka!” moments.  Yes–desire is the root of all suffering!  Yet all through primary growing up, I was taught that we don’t have to suffer if…we repent.  So how does that even work? And repent of…what??  The answer: Our suffering, or need to repent, comes from putting our own will–even our righteous desires–above God’s will.   Alternatively, life becomes instantly easier once we let God carry all that will power for us.

silhouette of a woman sitting cross legged with mountains in the distance with the sun shining behind her
Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

The Four Noble Truths: A Christian Perspective

Once we understand, from a Christian perspective, how the four noble truths work, it is easy to understand why “desire is the root of all suffering.”  In actuality, it makes absolute and complete sense.  Pain is part of life, but there is a difference between pain and suffering. And that difference is a BIG difference. 

There is a huge difference between being a victim vs. playing the role of a victim. We are all victims. But those who play the role of a victim will suffer, while those who choose a higher calling will not.
-Becky Thomas Eyre

God’s Will Be Done

As Christians, many of us were taught that when our will (desire) is God’s will (His desire), our will is SWALLOWED up in His. In other words…we no longer have one.  Our will is gone. “God’s will be done.”  But…doesn’t that mean we give up on ourselves, what we want, and who WE are??  Nope. Quite the contrary.  

woman on the floor holding her head in agony. desire is the root of all suffering
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

God’s Plan for Us Is Perfect

When we choose to turn our desires/suffering over to God (which is what the Christian atonement is all about), our carnal desires essentially become nullified, and only God’s desire remains.  We choose, through our agency, to stop resisting God’s plan for us (His plan=our best life!)  Suffering diminishes because there is no expectation…only perfect trust.  There is no anxiety or stress…only perfect love.  And we no longer worry because we know that God is perfect, God’s plan for us is perfect, and He desires what is best for us.  In other words, He’s got this!

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
Ralph Waldo Emmerson

God’s Will Is the Only Thing That Matters

When God’s will is the only thing that matters to us, it creates perfect hope.  In scriptural terms, “perfect hope” leaves no room for worry or expectation.  Rather, having perfect hope is to know.

man with light on his forehead looking towards the heavens.  Once you make a decision the universe will conspire to make it happen.
Photo by Josh Gordon on Unsplash

Committing ourselves to God’s will also creates perfect peace, which will naturally result (eventually) in creating a perfectly balanced, harmonious soul.  This process, in which we let go of our own will (i.e., lose ourselves in service to Him) is, ironically, how we find ourselves.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.  For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself…?
-Luke 9:24-25

In essence, surrendering our own desire to God’s is the exact opposite of giving up our identity, because we are choosing to trust the Master Creator, who knows EXACTLY who we are.  Through His personalized refining process for us, all impurities, false identities, and callousness fall away.  The result: A magnificent, glorious, angelic being, rivaling our past selves in startling contrast.  In laymen’s terms, we will have become the best version of ourselves.  In our present, imperfect condition, only God knows entirely what that is and what exactly that will take.  

Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths speak of the centrality of suffering in our lives, its source in grasping or clinging, its solution in letting go, and the eight-fold path to doing that. The first three of AA’s Twelve Steps are, in brief summary form, 1. I can’t, 2. God can, and 3. Let God. Or even more briefly, “Let go and let God.”
-Paul Adams

two people walking down two parallel paths towards the light in the forest
Photo by Erik van Dijk on Unsplash

In summary, I now believe, without a doubt, that desire is the root of all suffering.  So…when I find myself feeling out of balance, stressed, or “not myself,” I seek to align myself–as best I can–to God’s will again.  This often begins with resolute and determined prayer, a moment of decision, a willingness to see the truth (whatever that may be), and committing to do whatever God tells me to do.  In this holy space, true freedom from suffering can be found. 

“In a single moment, a person can choose to change everything. Change doesn’t have to take a long time; it happens the instant we decide.”
— Benjamin P. Hardy

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1 thought on “The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the Root of All Suffering?”

  1. I’ve been asked to give some examples of what it means to surrender. While surrendering our will to God’s will, thus relinquishing all desire, is more of a state of being than it is an achievement, we can still practice…one situation at a time. Here are two examples of what it means to let go of desire and surrender our will to God’s will. Forgive me if they are a little cheesy:
    1. Your neighbor comes up to you while you are working in your front yard and begins yelling in your face. She swears repeatedly, screams that your children were playing too close to her house, and labels you a terrible parent. DESIRE RESPONSE: You yell back at your neighbor and feel justified in doing so. As she is storming away, you wish you could punch her in the face. NO DESIRE RESPONSE: You observe your neighbor’s suffering and heightened response. You acknowledge to yourself that her behavior is not okay, but allow her to feel how she feels. Once she storms away, you ask (meditate/pray) if there is anything you need to do, or something you need to learn. As you are praying, you feel inspired to write your neighbor a note and bake her a cake. You smile…and you do just that.
    2. You have been dating someone for over a year and you love them dearly. You are ready to commit to marriage, when suddenly they end the relationship. DESIRE RESPONSE: You feel resentment, massive hurt, and confusion. You try to talk them out of it. Then you you talk to everyone you know about the injustice. NO DESIRE RESPONSE: If you truly love this person, you respect their decision because you recognize that this is their choice based on their desire. You trust that God has a plan for you, and acknowledge that you can choose to be happy with or without this person in your life.

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